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A Commitment to Belonging When the Stakes Are High

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    April Hattori

One day in February, students at Citizens Leadership Academy (CLA) participated in three marches: one at Cleveland Clinic's Miller Pavilion in support of doctors and scientists from Muslim countries working in the United States; one at University Circle United Methodist Church, which opens its doors to refugees, and one at The Islamic Center of Cleveland to show support for all religions in this country. Head of School Shelly Saltzman notes that this action evidences the school’s mission and vision as an EL Education school: preparing middle school students as leaders in community engagement and support of social justice.

From EL Education’s beginnings, we as a network have taken “belonging” seriously. “Belonging” in the EL Education network means acknowledging our interdependence, offering mutual support, and showing up for our communities, as CLA’s students did. This permeates a school in myriad ways, from the structure and spirit of Crew, to the ways schools deeply engage families and communities, to attention to the academic mindsets kids need to be successful, to the ways schools build staff and faculty culture.

While students from marginalized groups have long faced systemic obstacles in and out of school, we recognize that right now some groups are particularly targeted. Facing shifting political rhetoric and legal protections (or lack thereof) regarding students from immigrant families, EL Education schools are working via existing structures and new ones to reaffirm their commitments to kids, families, and their communities. In the words of Presumpscot Elementary School Principal Cynthia Loring, they are working to say and show, “We are here to protect you, value you, and honor you, and make sure you are safe.”

Here, we look at what teachers and leaders at EL Education schools are seeing and hearing from immigrant students and families, and how schools are responding.

What Schools Are Seeing
Many schools have reported that after the election, there was an initial rush of questions from kids about what might happen to them and their families. Schools report that the questions have died down somewhat, but the need for intentional and ongoing messages and actions in support has remained. In one school in particular, the fear many students and families are dealing with has had ramifications beyond what you might anticipate.

Beaverton School District’s Health and Science School, in Beaverton, OR has actively recruited students from low-income families and students of color since its inception, to participate in its Biomedical or Engineering Pathways.  Many of those students are immigrants or come from immigrant families. Schools do not ask about documentation status, but sometimes students volunteer the information, so the school knows that students come from a range of immigration situations, from having entered the U.S. without documentation to having parents who came to the U.S. to work in nearby companies such as Nike or Intel.

Family engagement in student projects, particularly those that involve sharing family stories, has always been robust. This year, for the first time, Principal Brian Sica says they are experiencing an increasing number of cancellations. Dr. Sica believes the parents still value school engagement, but simply are not comfortable with any type of public exposure.

Likewise, the current climate may be impacting student access to college. The school has a goal and track record of all students submitting their financial aid paperwork and at least one college application. While students without Social Security Numbers (SSN) cannot use the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, Oregon has an alternative form (the ORSSA) students can use to secure financial aid without an SSN. This year, says Sica, noticeably fewer students are asking for assistance accessing the form, presumably due to families not being able to risk revealing a lack of documentation. While the school holds Spanish-language parent engagement nights, the topics of those have lately had to be about resources, rights, and safety plans, instead of college readiness and planning; “those get compromised in the hierarchy of needs,” says Sica.

What Schools are Doing

Prioritizing Health and Safety
Health and Science School is working to make clear through words and actions that student well-being and safety are its priorities. The district in which the school is located has publicly expressed support for immigrant families, as well as looked at policy changes that may create barriers for families without current documentation.  All the same, fear of Immigration and Customs Enforcement  (ICE) raids in places that families work and live is present. The school is in touch with parents to write individual safety plans; in case one or both parents is detained during the course of the school day, a plan will be in place to make sure that student is safe and protected.

Clear Messaging
School leaders and teachers are also getting very clear in their messages to their communities. Some, like Kristin Harrison, Executive Director of Christa McAuliffe Charter School in Framingham MA, have sent out community-wide emails reaffirming the school’s commitments to the education of every child. Others, like Capital City Public Charter School in Washington, D.C. have crafted and displayed ubiquitous posters of support.

Cap City Poster

Legal Assistance
Moving beyond messages, schools are also working to coordinate services that aren’t normally within their purview, but which they know are essential right now. Capital City,  The Brooklyn Collaborative (part of the NYC Outward Bound Schools network), and Lake County Intermediate School in Leadville, CO have incorporated volunteer immigration lawyers into already-planned events like Student-Led Conference or Family Info nights, so families wishing speak with someone can do so without an extra trip to the school and without drawing extra attention. These resources have also helped teachers, who are hearing more and more technical immigration questions.

Connecting Communities
Recognizing the opportunity to disrupt patterns of de facto segregation, schools are also intensifying efforts to connect the various communities within their overall populations. At Presumpscot Elementary School in Portland, ME,  about half of students are from immigrant backgrounds.

The existing Family Council, made up of parents and guardians, has seen increased participation since the election. Families who had never attended began to show up, and work together on their questions of “what can we do? How are we going to continue to support immigrant families in a way that’s visible, tangible, organic?”  Presumpscot has been coordinating and sponsoring monthly Saturday events where immigrant family members from the school community share, teach, and cook a family recipe.

Presumpscot Cook And Meet

Making Curriculum Relevant
Schools are also feeling driven to adjust their curriculum, often less in direct response to the vagaries of policy and the news, and more with a renewed sense of the importance of preparing their students for engaged participation in the world.

At the Springfield Renaissance School in Springfield, MA, seventh-grade teacher Teisha Thomas put a local spin on a performance task embedded within EL Education’s Language Arts Curriculum.  She replaced the  task in the Grade 7 ELA Curriculum module 1 (featuring the book A Long Walk to Water and the people of southern Sudan) with a letter to the city’s mayor about Springfield as a gateway city for refugee resettlement.

Presumpscot’s Third Grade, which is also implementing EL Education’s Language Arts Curriculum, deepened the Grade 3 Curriculum module 1 on how books are brought to children around the world by incorporating visits from recent and not-so-recently immigrated families. Families were invited in as experts, for the purpose of elevating their cultures, elating the students, and making clear, in the words of Cynthia Loring, “You are important. You are one of us. ”

At Health and Science School in Oregon, students have made videos about the immigrant experience and are seeking publication though PBS’ Reporting Lab.

Culture Kickoff6 1

Taking Action
And, working to embody their commitments to the protection of all their students and families, schools are engaging in direct action. At Brooklyn Collaborative, students, teachers, and leaders encircled the building with a piece of string, asserting that “within these walls, within our arms, all students are safe and validated,” says Assistant Principal Amanda Boege.

At  Capital City Public Charter School, so many of the school’s expeditions are already justice-focused and meant to activate students, and direct-action components built into project plans at almost every grade. DC’s city-wide Student Walkout Day became relevant field work for 6th graders. On February 16, A Day Without Immigrants, school leaders communicated to families that they respected their right to protest as they saw fit, with family permission. Students who came to school had chances to show support, making stickers and buttons.  

At Lake County Intermediate School in Colorado, Spanish teacher Amy Lovato coordinated student participation in “Padres y Jovenes” lobbying day at the Capitol in Denver, where students spoke on the House floor about how immigration affects their area of the state.

Casco Bay High School and King Middle School, both in Portland, ME and home to many refugees, have received national attention both for what has happened in their communities, and for the schools’ responses (read more here, and watch EL Education’s video  ”Walking In Solidarity” about the Casco Bay events here).

Bcs String Action

Using What’s In Place
Many of these schools are finding that it’s the strength of their existing structures that have allowed for timely, meaningful responses when students and families are deeply affected by shifts in policy and rhetoric. For Brooklyn Collaborative, the structure of Staff Crew was especially supportive, and its two-years-running thematic overview of “allyship” has “given us a way to talk about issues as they come up,” says Assistant Principal Boege. The school also had an established Social Justice committee of teachers, who work to develop Crew lessons and have been able to turn their attention to developing a series called “What is Islam?” in response to latest rhetoric associating Islam with terrorism. Brooklyn Collaborative has also always been “proactively teaching about immigrant rights, women’s rights, gay rights history...so kids are prepared to not just be responsive to the news without that background,” says Boege.

At Capital City, an Equity Core Committee has been the “think tank and review board” for issues of equity, says Jake Fishbein, Director of Curriculum and Instruction for the K-12 school.  This group has been leading equity learning groups several times a year. Multiple expeditions already served to activate students, from a seventh grade study on immigration and migration, to the eighth grade look at how technology can be wielded for change, to tenth grade migration monologues.

And of course, there is Crew. Many school leaders we spoke with described students in tears in the days after the election; most schools named Crew as a place where students know they are safe to feel their feelings and ask their questions.

Students bring questions to Crew about how policies may affect them as individuals, but also about how they will impact our nation, and who will bear the brunt of proposed and actual changes to policy. It’s a meaningful illustration of the structure and spirit aspects of Crew: in this master-scheduled part of the day, students extend the crew ethos beyond the school walls, considering who belongs on a societal level, and what they can do as “crew, not passengers,” in this national moment.

For this post, we asked EL Education school leaders what they’ve been seeing and how they’ve responded at a school level; we also recognize that students’ and families’ voices are the authority on their own experiences. If you’d like to share a student or family perspective with us, please contact sboddy@eleducation.org